Next speaker at the International Eventing Forum was Eric Smiley. Eric is a renowned coach and was a regular of the Irish Eventing Team. Eric is also a regular on ground juries at FEI events.
The theme of Eric’s demo was The Beginning, looking at how to educate young horses to think for themselves.
From Eric Smiley –
Riders often make mistakes and are usually grateful for their horse, but you need to teach your horse at the early stages to cope with this as otherwise they would not have been able to cope when something goes wrong.
You need to break down the process. Start at the beginning. Good riders sometimes do too much for their horse.
Eric always finds it intriguing that people ride a turn to a fence. Try to eliminate the concept of riding turns before a fence. Make it a curve as this lets the horse flow and go.
Watch as the horse goes over a pole to see their natural instincts – do they take long strides? short strides? Are they making an effort?
Horses are accommodating their natural instincts so you want to see what happens. Are they very uncomfortable or do they get used to it? Get an idea of what the horse is comfortable with and see what is in their brain. As a rider you should enhance and encourage their natural instincts.
Every sport at the highest level will test reaction time. You need to develop the mental pathway of the brain to muscles. This also needs to be carried out with horses, but you need to do it the right way.
Eric had riders cantering a pole. Is it balanced? Does the horse change as it sees the pole? Young horses are unpredictable.
Try to do nothing but keep the same canter. Keep doing it until the horse makes a plan about where to put their feet.
Riders are often too quick to blame themselves but you need to pass some responsibility to the horse. 99% of the time horses will make a plan quite well.
Next Eric had the riders doing a pole with half circle to jump. Caroline’s horse did 4 strides then 5 strides then 4 strides. There is inconsistency with that and it will produce an inconsistent take off. Helen’s horse did 4 strides every time as no other choice with his canter.
Its easy for horses to make a good decision from canter but difficult for riders not to do something on the point of take off when they feel the horse is doing something wrong or is not doing something. Riders need to sit quietly and see if the horse takes any initiative.
Leave the horse alone – just ride the line.
There has to be a transfer of ownership at some point, but you have to balance that with feeling like the horse is doing something. The second a rider tells the horse to jump it stops making decisions. Riders should be handing over responsibility 3 strides out.
Riders should be using the leg to support but not to chase.
On take off if the rider feels the horse is stalling use stick/kick/voice to make the horse do something. When the horse does something reward them. This rewards the horse for good thought process – ‘I will support you, but you have to do it.’
Riders find it hard to be passive – they like to do things.
Eric always puts out guide rails on the floor in order to aid straightness.
Horses should not take over until you say.
If you ask riders about why they checked before a fence they often do not know why but think they should. Much better to keep what you have if good and let the horse puzzle it out.
The rider must keep producing the same canter then all the horse has to do is react to the fence.
Horses who have had the basics well installed over little fences and poles will take that up to bigger fences.
On cross country you need to make quick decisions and this should be practised over smaller fences.
In order to build neural pathways for the horse you practice what they know and then throw in the odd little surprise. In this case Eric had the riders popping over a bounce.
Catherine’s horse on cross country is going to run to his fences, the rider will hold then take their leg off, the front end will become stuck as not enough is being done to make them come through behind. As a coach you need to encourage the rider but give advice and identify the issues as the rider needs to be able to ride to the fence not hold the horse off. (Catherine’s horse was taking a keen hold, Eric had her sitting more quietly with the hand and supporting the horse through her body.)
When trainers say use more leg from the rider they often don’t mean it, they mean that they want more from the leg.
By giving horses a repetitive process which puts them at the right spot they work out what is happening and become consistent. Adding a surprise in nicely so they are not sure where they are going means they have to put trust in the rider to stay on the line. (Eric had riders popping through the wings of one fence and then turning to jump an oxer which the horse could not see until a few strides away.)
Horses need to learn to look along the line.
Eric told Caroline Powell off for fiddling. ‘Take what you get, the last thing you want to do is take a pull 3 strides away. The horse will not take ownership so will wait for instruction to jump.’
Don’t worry about knocking poles, let the horse learn.
Feed in the questions, then alternate them and ask quicker. Eric had the riders doing a small course so the horses were not sure where they were going and so the questions were coming quicker.
Sitting still does not mean you don’t ride the canter.
All the time you are trying to build the skills so on take off be quick to do something, if the horse needs to listen to the rider i.e. they are backing off.
Young horses need to understand the tools of the trade. Next stage if we were building up this exercise would be to swap the oxer for a corner and an upright for a skinny. Surprise in a good way so the recall is quicker.
If you do the beginning well then you can trust the horse to have the right responses they can recall when needed. The reaction time is reduced and is then instinctive. Decision making is slow. Reflex action is quick.
All the distances Eric used were built on 21m. This is a good distances because you can go 5 or 6 strides quite comfortably without interfering too much.
If restricted on space it could be done on 4/5 strides but you do not want to do it on 3/4 strides. If you are tight on space work on fences on half circles.
If the horse keeps knocking the fence down, you keep going until there is a lightbulb moment. Do not change the message or lesson. If the horse looks blank or does not understand the message then you can take a step back and build up again. You need to say this is the question – puzzle it out.
Eric told the audience that he once had a 5yo horse that kept knocking down planks. Then one day the lightbulb went and he went 4* in the end. The horse realised he had to do something. If you change too much too quickly then you miss the opportunity for horses to puzzle things out.
If the horse is positively dangerous and does not work things out then you maybe need to look at selling them!
If the horse is getting anxious then you have to go back a step and rebuild the thought process. Horses need to know that if they touch a pole it’s not good. Horses will try for you, and you need to let them know if you are pleased with them.